Poor Old Kafka

The essay I want to write about Kafka is not coming along; to the point that last night Mister Litlove suggested it was time ‘to put it in the garage’, which made us both laugh. Kafka is so hard to write about. W. H. Auden said in his essay ‘The I Without A Self’ that this was because he wrote parables, ‘a literary genre about which a critic can say very little worth saying.’ In his opinion this is because more straightforward literature offers a situation, a context, a mindset, that the critic can elucidate and explain, whereas such particulars are irrelevant to the meaning of a parable: ‘a good critic can make others see things in a novel or a play which, but for him, they would never have seen for themselves. But if he tries to interpret a parable, he will only reveal himself.’ Towards the end of the essay, Auden suggests that this is the real reason why Kafka wanted his work burnt: ‘Kafka foresaw the nature of too many of his admirers.’ Don’t read him, Auden says, if you’re down and miserable, as it will only result in a pointless fascination with your own suffering. Read him only when healthy and contemptuous of any ‘morbid fuss’, holding tight to a ‘passion for the good life’.

Hermann Kafka. Boo! Hiss!

What would it be, I wonder, to read Kafka, not so much with passion, as with a steady, unfailing compassion for the ordeal of patient suffering that so many of his protagonists undergo? I’ve been reading Kafka’s Brief an den Vater, or Letter to the Father, 80 pages of controlled, rationalised pleas to his father to acknowledge what an atrocious effect he had on his son, in the hope (doomed, doomed, poor Kafka, can you not see?) that his father might unbend a little towards him, alter his ways, give him the acceptance he craved. Papa Kafka was a domestic tyrant, a big brutish man with a nasty temper and an ugly intolerance for anything that didn’t reflect his own ideas. He had been born into poverty and managed an admirable transformation of himself into a bourgeois merchant. He persistently conveyed rigid contempt for his own children, brought up so soft thanks to his strivings, and tormented Kafka in particular for his sensitive, delicate nature. Kafka felt the only way of winning his father’s love would be to be like him, and he wasn’t like him at all. Only he knew this wasn’t quite the case because the behaviour his father disliked more in his children than their weakness was a display of courageous opposition.

It seems fairly clear from Kafka’s account that his father indulged in narcissistic denigration: he made himself all big and puffed up by denigrating others, which is of course all too simple to do when the others in question are little children. As Kafka wrote in his letter ‘against me you were very powerful, and you used all your power.’ In consequence, Kafka was left carrying an intolerable burden of guilt and shame about himself: ‘I lost the confidence to do anything,’ he wrote, and not surprisingly, when he was on the receiving end of his father’s educational methods, a litany of ‘abuse, threats, irony, a mocking laugh and peculiar self-pity.’

I find it hard to get past Kafka’s relationship with his father when reading his work. It’s a feature of Kafka that it’s all too easy to reduce his scintillatingly elegant and complex writings to one thing: the fate of being a despised and displaced Jew, the madness of extreme reason, the experience of a mind-game-playing father. They are so much richer than that. Yet, the concepts and the language Kafka uses in his writing show their origins in this letter to his father:

‘the law lay in your person and not in your wisdom’

‘[my father] was my final court of appeal, and for him I was nothing’

‘One would already be punished to a certain extent before one knew one had done something wrong.’

‘I had accumulated too much guilt to doubt your judgement’

‘this dreadful trial in which we [Kafka and his siblings] and you [his father] are entangled’

Reading around the subject of Kafka these past few weeks, it seems to me that the psychoanalytic approach is the least appreciated in critical circles. I think this is because Kafka himself, although interested in Freud and his writings, felt they didn’t quite work for him. And that’s true. What Kafka needed was object relations, a branch of psychoanalysis that had yet to be created, and which focussed on the way the child developed in relation to a primary carer. What matters in this instance is the way the parent responds to the child to meet its needs: to satisfy it or to make it wait, to step back and stop when the child wants space, to step forward when the child needs comfort. By these basic responses, the child develops a map of the world and a conviction about his or her place in it. For a sensitive boy like Kafka, his father’s inability to love him just as he was, his storms of angry rage over tiny mistakes, his way of submitting others to rules he did not himself follow would have made a very profound and disturbing impact, one that created an imaginary landscape of a merciless law, excessive and all-encompassing that often singled out its victim in order to torment him.

Franz Kafka

What gets learned at this early stage is understood to be vital to one’s survival; children feel they must please parents in order to be loved and looked after. And this is why Kafka, even in adulthood, could not help but seek the approval of a father he knew with his intelligent mind would never give it. He wrote in the letter ‘it appeared to a child that life existed through your mercy, and continued as your unearned gift’. Survival, then, was at stake. That nagging conviction that life came to him through his father and was only sweet with his approval simply could not be shrugged off. And in any case, Kafka was by now wrangling with a father figure that was lodged fatally inside his own mind. At the end of the letter, he includes a couple of pages written, incredibly, as if from the father’s point of view, continuing the argument on a mental mobius strip that endlessly revolves but never changes. It didn’t matter how far Kafka moved away from his father, his father was inside him in any case, a domineering, unjust, merciless voice from the superego, condemning him to failure no matter what he did.

What Kafka needed, and what he never got, was a completely different perspective, one that began with compassion as the starting point for suffering, rather than shame and disgrace. But is it possible to read Kafka’s work with that compassion and make something useful out of it? If you could take Joseph K, or K from The Castle, or that poor beetle that Gregor Samsa metamorphoses into and shake them by the shoulders (or whatever cockroaches have), saying ‘What if we took your suffering into account? What if we understood it to be important, and not the first thing to be discounted?’ But I’m not sure if that isn’t a way to miss the point entirely. W. H. Auden in his essay spends a lot of time fretting that Kafka isn’t read right and he does read him very cleverly, looking at the structure of his novels as distorted quests, in which the anti-hero will never know what he is seeking, or why, and will indeed never find it in any case. But I can’t warm to Auden’s implicit condemnation of all those other misguided readers. It sounds too much like the narcissistic denigration that Kafka’s father practiced – I am right, while you are wrong. Perhaps one can only write about Kafka in a way that reveals oneself, but perhaps, unlike the Kafkaesque approach, which is to find this horrifying and shameful, it might have to be accepted as a merciful truth.



15 thoughts on “Poor Old Kafka

  1. Were you granted a wish to go back and the power to transform Kafka’s father into the compassionate parent he craved… knowing Franz would have a pleasurable self-fulfilled life–as an accountant who never wrote a word anyone would want to read… would you offer offer him your compassionate magical rescue…. or let him suffer so we would all have those delicious enigmatic stories to enjoy at his expense?


  2. Jacob – ach my friend, what a question you ask! You see, you go right to the heart of it with that. And if Kafka had lived longer… and finished The Trial and The Castle? Would an ending have been as oddly satisfying as the endless prospect of uncertainty that we are left with?

  3. Kay Redfield Jamison raises similar questions in her book on artists & Manic-Depression, Touched with Fire.

    The Joker in that question, of course, is the unstated assumption that the more visible vicissitudes of being socialized animals are and should be fixable… that there’s a measurable ratio to … or some such. I like Lacan here… that there is no cure to the neuroses that dog us all without exception… but psychoanalysis might be one way to live more meaningfully and creatively with our afflictions–by better understanding what they are.

    … and questions like that can never be answered by anyone but the one who suffers. To assume otherwise is the source of a great deal of entirely avoidable misery.

    I think we can enjoy The Country Doctor with a clean conscious.


  4. Sorry to hear your essay is parked but that doesn’t mean it will never be written.
    The whole post made me think of Alice Miller, as usual when I read about abusive parents and am (of course) reminded of my mother.
    Jacob certainly does have a point but wo knows maybe he would have written much more but other books…
    I’m sure he would have enjoyed his life more.

  5. This was wonderful reading. I don’t suppose you could use this blog post as a jumping off point for your essay? I wouldn’t want to wish a father like that on anyone nor do I want to say that Kafka’s work justifies his father. But one does have to wonder what would have been if his father was a kind and loving man and would the work be better for it?

  6. Pingback: What is Kafkaesque? « Time's Flow Stemmed

  7. He is certainly a puzzle, isn’t he? I like the idea of Kafka as someone who makes his critics reveal themselves instead of allowing the critics to reveal something about him. I agree that any critic who reduces him to one reading is going to be dissatisfactory. I guess he’s an exercise in being able to hold a bunch of interpretations in one’s mind at once and being comfortable with not settling down to just one of them.

  8. I think it’s telling that the keystone of Kafka’s work was The Judgment, the story that poured out of him one night and possessed him with such force that he only felt he became a real writer after having written it. The father in it is such a monster, and the son’s relation to him so paradoxical, that I think the story does serve as a mythic pageant for the dynamics you’re discussing here. Perhaps it could be a focal point for your essay?

    Re: Auden. I am always so cheered and invigorated by the vividness and brilliance of Kafka’s imagination that no matter what despair I might feel, it’s always redeemed by the indefatigable creative demiurge on display.

  9. I would say that essay on Kafka might not be as garaged as you think. This was wonderful, LL. I don’t think I’ve read Kafka. If I’d have read something by him while in school, surely I would remember it.

  10. Jacob – basically, I think that people with tendencies towards neuroses, or intolerable family situations or genetically inherited disorders are going to have to deal with those things throughout their lives, and maybe it’s creativity that helps them. Which is pretty much what you’re saying! I will continue to enjoy The Country Doctor. 😉

    Caroline – yes, I’ve been given the tip that Alice Miller actually wrote a chapter about Kafka. I’ve enjoyed her work but didn’t realise she had written on him. So I will definitely search that out. It’s okay – I’m good with taking a break to get my thoughts in order about the Kafka. I will definitely come back to it.

    Stefanie – ah I am transparent to you! I do hope I’ll be able to pick apart the post a little and use bits of it for the essay. Blogging really helps me loosen up when I have got my thinking into knots. Alas, Kafka and his father were stuck with each other; but I am in awe of the imaginative capacity that Kafka had to take his situation and transform it in so many extraordinay and meaningful ways.

    Dorothy – I like the way you put that. It is about holding multiple interpretations together without squashing any of them – you hit the nail on the head!

    Jacob – I did see Richard’s review and thought it was excellent. I’d certainly recommend any GJ fans to read it.

    David – what you say about Kafka’s extraordinary creativity being cheering is absolutely spot on. Now I’m going to steal it and use it all the time. 😉 The Judgment is a good call; I’m also interested in the way that Kafka was pleased with the story because it came out perfect. Who ever would think (apart from Kafka of course) that the first draft had to be The One? But you’re right that story has everything – the dream world, the distorted relation to authority, the mad father, the excessive judgment. Hmmm, much to think about there. Thank you!

    Grad – oh yes, I think he’d stick in your mind. If you were ever in the mood to try him, then the short stories are really the place to start – Metamorphosis or The Judgment. And thank you for your kind comment – you do encourage me!

  11. There’s a story by Nadine Gordimer (I seem to remember it’s in “Something Out There”), using Kafka’s father as a narrator, and answering back to his son’s letter. You might enjoy reading that–although Kafka comes out as a rather mawkish, self-pitying, ineffective and half-baked wimp. Which I suppose does justice, in a way, to Kafka’s portrait of his father. But it’s a good argument for the Other Side of the question. Anyway it’s a good addition to the literature on this loaded issue, fathers’ and sons’ expectations and disappointments.

  12. JoseAngel – thank you for that! I’d love to follow up that recommendation – it sounds fascinating, and Gordimer is one of those writers I’ve been meaning to read for years. Always nice to kill two birds with one stone!

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